Abundant Love

July 25th 2021 homily on Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:5-13 by Pastor Galen

An Abundance of Food

I grew up in south-central Pennsylvania, and the culture there places a high value on having large quantities of food. Some cultures around the world place a high value on the quality of the food, or the way the food is presented, but generally speaking in Pennsylvania Dutch culture, people are generally impressed when there’s a lot of food.

In fact, I think that having a lot of food is one of the primary love languages in south-central PA! You know someone loves you when they invite you to their house or take you out to a smorgasbord and there’s a ton of food. This is also generally how food is evaluated at weddings, or buffets, or holiday meals. People will gush “there was so much food!” or “there were so many different options!” And one of the highest compliments you can pay a cook in south-central PA is to say “I am stuffed!”

I can only imagine that the same was true for many of the people listening to Jesus teach that day on the hillside near the sea of Galilee. Many people in Jesus’s day lived day-to-day, often not knowing where their next meal would come from, they often lived in fear that they would not have enough food for the next day. 

And so Jesus’s multiplication of food would have been especially impressive to them – not only because it was miraculous, but because of the sheer volume of food that was produced. John tells us that they started with only 5 loves and two fish from a little boy’s lunch, and in the end 5,000 people ate and were filled, and there were twelve huge baskets full of food left over – much more than they had when they began! This was an abundant amount of food – more food than anywhere there that day had ever seen in their entire lifetime.  

Jesus feeding 5,000 people on a hillside in Galilee, then, was not just a miraculous display of God’s power – it was a tangible expression of Christ’s lavish and exceedingly abundant love for all people.

Paul’s Prayer for the Ephesians

In Ephesians chapter 3, Paul shares with the Christians at Ephesus (by way of letter), how he has been praying for them. Paul has been asking that God would strengthen the Ephesian Christ’s “inner being with power through his Spirit,” and that Christ would dwell in their hearts through faith, as they are being rooted and grounded in love. (Eph. 3:16-17).

And then Paul tells the Ephesians that he prays to God continually that they would “have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18-19).

It’s interesting here that Paul doesn’t launch into a philosophical discussion of the four types of love in the Greek cultural context, and why Jesus’s love for the Ephesians is different from the romantic love that they might experience for their spouses, or the brotherly love they might have for their friends. Instead, Paul wants the Ephesians to know the sheer volume of God’s abundant love for them.

Paul wants them to know just how deep and how wide and how high God’s love is for them. As that old song says, it’s so high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, so wide you can’t get around it. Oh the wonderful, vast, and abundant love of Jesus!

Now why exactly is Paul so concerned that the Ephesian Christians know and experience the vast quantity of God’s love for them?

Jesus Vs. Artemis

Well, as we’ve been talking about the past few weeks, Paul knows that for so many years the Ephesians had been deprived of the knowledge of God’s love for them. They had been starving for God’s love and affection! And even now that they’ve accepted Jesus as their Savior, often-times they were looked at as second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God – because they were Gentiles – not originally part of the Israelite nation, the people historically known as God’s chosen people. 

Not only that, but the Ephesians used to worship idols.  Specifically the Greek goddess Artemis, whose temple was located in Ephesus. But Artemis was a deity much more to be feared and appeased than a god who was ever thought to love them. Artemis was especially feared by pregnant women, as deaths during pregnancy and childbirth were generally attributed to Artemis. The Ephesians worshiped Artemis to get on her good side, and to try to ensure the health and safety of their wives and sisters and mothers in childbirth. They didn’t worship Artemis out of response to any sort of love that she had for them, but rather they worshiped her out of fear and obligation.

And so Paul has been shepherding the Ephesian Christians to know and understand the love of God expressed through Jesus Christ. In Ephesians chapter 1 Paul addressed the idea of chosenness, telling the Ephesians that they were in fact included in God’s chosen people, that God had indeed chosen each and every one of us “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). In chapter 2, Paul paints a beautiful picture of the Gentile Christians, who had formerly been excluded from worshiping God in the temple in Jerusalem, but now together with the Jewish Christians, Christ has built us into a holy temple – a dwelling place for God. Paul says that we are “no longer strangers and aliens, but…members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).

And now here in chapter 3, Paul focuses on the love of Jesus, and how much he longs for the Ephesian Christians and for all of us today to know that we are deeply and abundantly loved by God. He wants us to know the vastness and the sheer magnitude of God’s love expressed in tangible form through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Someone once said, “I asked Jesus, ‘How much do you love me?’ And Jesus said, ‘This much.’ Then He stretched out His arms and died.” That’s the abundant love of God that Paul wanted each and everyone one of us to know and experience.

God Loves Us – And Likes Us

Now sometimes we may think to ourselves, well of course God loves us! God has to love us! God loves everybody

In thinking this way, we depersonalize God’s love, we make it so abstract and amorphous that it becomes almost meaningless. 

But the reality is that God not only loves us, but God also likes us! God delights in us! Psalm 147:11 says, “the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.” And Zephaniah 3:17 says, “He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”

I love that image of God rejoicing over us with singing! While we’re here in church singing songs of praise to God, God is singing over us! When we’re at home alone in our room and praying to God, God is delighting in us. Whether we’re at work or school or at the store, or interacting with our neighbors – and we put our hope in God’s unfailing love – God delights in us. 

One Christian comedian said, “I’d never heard anyone say that God likes me. I knew God loved me – I mean of course God loves me, God is love, I mean that’s sort of what God does! But I’d never heard that God likes me!” The idea that God likes us – delights in us – rejoices over us – that’s an amazing thought.

For a people such as the Ephesians who had been deprived of the knowledge of God’s love for so long, Paul’s greatest desire was that they would be filled to overflowing with the knowledge of God’s vast and abundant love – and delight in us. 

Sleeping with Bread

There’s a story that comes to us from the time of World War 2, when thousands of children were orphaned and experienced starvation. Many of the children were rescued and placed in refugee camps. But, even though they now had plenty of food and were well cared for, many of the children could not fall asleep at night. They were afraid of waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing the workers did seemed to reassure them.

Finally someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a loaf of bread to hold at night. Holding their bread throughout the night, the children could finally sleep in peace, because all through the night the bread served as a reminder to the child that, ‘Today I ate, and tomorrow I will eat again.’”

To Know The Love Of Christ

Friends, the reality is that so many people in our world today – and often many of us as well – have been deprived of love, and are starving to know God’s love and affection. Maybe you’ve heard about God’s love through Christ, but you think that God could never love you because of who we are or what you’ve done. If that’s you, my prayer for you today is that you would know and experience the deep and abundant love of Christ – just how high and deep and wide it truly is!

This is one reason why we come together in worship each week – because we all need to be reminded of God’s love for us. This is why we learn and sing songs about God’s love, and why we memorize and study Scripture – so that we have something to hold onto when we experience the tests and trials of this life. This is why we participate together in times of prayer and fellowship as a congregation, why we take meals to those who are sick or to those who have experienced loss. It’s why we tend not just to the spiritual, but also to the physical needs of those in our church community – so that we can all know and be reminded of God’s love for us. 

This is why also why our Food Pantry exists – not just to fill stomachs – but even moreso to demonstrate God’s abundant love in a practical, tangible way.

As we look at the world around us, it’s not hard to see that many people in our world today are starving for love. We see the lengths to which so many people go to gain attention, or companionship, or affirmation. And when people do find something that looks like love – whether it’s genuine or not – we see the lengths to which they go to hold on to it. 

Like the 5,000 hungry people on the hillside near the sea of Galilee, like the Ephesian Christians, and like the orphans who had been deprived of food, our world is desperately in need of tangible reminders of God’s love for them. 

Some people may never set foot in the doors of our church. But like Paul, we can pray for our friends and family members and neighbors and coworkers and classmates to know and experience the love of Christ – to know just how vast and high it is. To know that Jesus loves them so much that he stretched out his arms and died for them.

Maybe we can’t feed the multitudes with five loaves and two fish, but we can give an orphan a loaf of bread. We can ask God for opportunities to share God’s love with those around us in practical ways. Food is always a good place to start! Whether your culture values abundance, or quality, or presentation, I think in many ways the gesture of giving food to someone transcends culture. Maybe you can buy a coworker a cup of coffee and ask them how they’re doing. Maybe you can take the new neighbors a plate of cookies, or visit someone who is homebound. Perhaps you can share your snacks at school, or buy a meal for someone who is homeless. Whatever it is, whatever we have to offer, know that Jesus can multiply it to show his abundant love and affection.

God’s love for us is so high we can’t get over it, so low we can’t get under it, so wide we can’t get around it. We’ve experienced God’s love today, and we’ll experience God’s love again tomorrow. Amen.

He Is Our Peace

July 18th 2021 homily on Eph. 2:11-22 by Pastor Galen Zook

A Class Divided

In 1968, Jane Elliott, who was at that time a 3rd grade teacher in the all-white town of Riceville, Iowa, decided to conduct a simulation with her class to help them understand what it’s like to feel descrimination. 

Elliott divided her class by eye color — those with blue eyes she put in one group, and those with brown eyes she put in the other group. On the first day, she told the class that the blue-eyed children were smarter, nicer, neater, and better than those with brown eyes. Throughout the day, Elliott praised them and gave them special privileges such as taking a longer recess and being first in the line for lunch. In contrast, Elliott criticized the behavior and performance of the brown-eyed children. On the second day, the roles were reversed and the brown-eyed children were praised, while the blue-eyed children were denigrated. 

What happened over the course of the unique two-day exercise was a surprise to both the teacher and her students. On both days, children who were designated as inferior began performing poorly on tests and other work. In contrast, the “superior” students — became mean-spirited and seemed to like putting down the other group.

Elliott said, “I watched what had been marvelous, cooperative, wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third-graders in a space of fifteen minutes.” She says she realized then that she had “created a microcosm of society in a third-grade classroom.”

Elliott conducted her simulation again the following year with her next class of 3rd graders, and again the year after that, this time with film cameras present to capture the whole experiment on tape. To this day, the video footage from Elliott’s little experiment provides plenty of fodder for research and discussion in many academic environments.

Elliott’s division of the classroom into two different groups based upon eye color was a rather arbitrary decision. She could have divided her students by the months in which they were born, or the number of siblings they had, or by the color of the shoes they happened to be wearing that day. Of course this is not too different from any of the other number of ways that we divide ourselves in our society today. But the point is that what we’re told about ourselves and others has a tremendous impact on the way we perceive ourselves, and the way we act towards those who are different from us.

A Divided Church

In Ephesians 2, Paul is writing to Christians in Ephesus – the majority of whom were Gentiles. In other words, the Ephesians were not part of the group historically known as God’s “chosen people,” the Israelite nation. In chapter 1 of Ephesians, we saw how Paul tried to counter that narrative by telling the Ephesian Christians that Christ had chosen them (and indeed all of us) “before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1:4). 

Now here in chapter 2, Paul addresses head-on the division that existed between the Jewish and Gentile believers, and the many ways in which the Gentile Christians had been made to feel as though they were less than or inferior, or further away from God, because of their ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Paul acknowledges, of course, that the Ephesians had at one time been separated from God. As we talked about last week, the Ephesians had previously been worshipers of idols, and had practiced magic and witchcraft, before they set their hope on Christ. But even now, as followers of Christ, a hierarchy often existed between the Jews and the Gentile Christians – referred to in Paul’s day as “the circumcised” and “the uncircumcised.” Now to us this sounds like an arbitrary division – not unlike brown eyes and blue eyes, or the color of our skin. But in Paul’s day, for Jewish Christians, circumcision was the distinctive mark of their supposed special status and privilege and close proximity to God. And “uncircumcision” was the way they referred to those who didn’t keep the Jewish law and customs, and were therefore seen as being further away from God.

The Dividing Wall

There were in fact real physical barriers in place that made the Gentile Christians feel as though they were still far away from God. If any Ephesian Gentile Christians ever dared venture so far as to travel to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, for example, they would have only been allowed to walk into the outer courts of the temple, where all of the buying and selling of livestock for the temple sacrifices often occurred. If they tried to walk into the interior courts of the temple, they would be blocked by a literal wall and an ominous sign which prohibited  them from proceeding any further into the temple. 

This one of the several signs that hung on that wall, blocking them from going any further into the temple. The English translation of the sign reads: “No foreigner is to enter within the balustrade and embankment around the sanctuary.  Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his death which follows.”

Imagine walking into church and trying to bring your offering to God, or trying to partake in communion, and being met with a sign like that! But indeed, this would have been the experience for any Gentile, including Gentile Christians, who wanted to go and worship in the temple. No wonder they felt inferior, and no wonder they felt distant from God!

A Temple Without Dividing Walls

This is why it’s especially significant that Paul tells the Ephesians Christians that in Christ the “dividing wall” of hostility has been broken down. Paul tells the Ephesians “in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12-13). And Paul goes on to say, “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” 

Even though the wall in the temple in Jerusalem was still standing at the time of Paul’s writing this letter, Paul is saying that through Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike can experience close proximity to God. In fact, in Christ Jesus, God has come near to us! That’s why it’s so significant that Christ’s ministry was for the most part outside of the temple structure. Christ brought God’s peace and God’s presence to the streets and towns where people lived, to the fishing villages and farming communities where they worked. He entered their houses, sat in their boats, walked through their fields, attended their parties. He interacted with the marginalized and outcasts of society, touched those who were considered the unclean, and healed and forgave anyone and everyone who recognized their need for Jesus and came to him for mercy.

Through Christ God has come near to us. Christ broke through the wall that separated us from God, and in doing so he broke down the walls that separate us from one another as well. That’s why it’s often been said that there is both a vertical and a horizontal dimension to salvation. That’s why we say that “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” When we kneel at the cross and give our all to Jesus, we are reconciled both to God, and to one another. 

That doesn’t mean that our physical differences disappear, but it does mean that our differences do not exclude us from God’s love, and should not divide us from one another either.  Our physical differences and distinctions should not make some feel as though they are superior, or others to feel inferior, but instead we are reminded that in Christ we are all one. 

And so Paul says, “Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (Eph. 2:15-22). 

Did you catch that? As members of Christ’s body, we are to be a holy temple in the Lord. A dwelling place for God! Jews and Gentiles, previously had been prohibited from worshiping together in the same spaces in the temple, but now because of Christ Jesus we ARE the temple! Gentiles, who previously were blocked from entering into God’s house, now together with Jewish believers we have been made into the dwelling place of God! Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. How amazing is that!

Breaking Down the Dividing Wall of Hostility

Of course it’s one thing to believe it. It’s a whole other thing to live it out. And while none of us would ever want to admit it, if we’re honest with ourselves, we do tend to think that there’s some sort of hierarchy in terms of closeness or proximity to God. And while we probably wouldn’t come right out and say it, many of us do tend to think that our way is the best way, and that we have some sort of special handle on the truth. 

Sure, we might couch it in terms of theology, or preferences of styles of worship. We might say that certain styles of music or prayer just help us connect with God more than other forms. But what happens when our style of worship or prayer makes others feel excluded? What happens when the way we praise or worship or talk about God makes others feel as though they are welcome here, or that this is not a place for them? How exactly do we break down the “dividing wall of hostility?” And what does it look like to be “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God?”

Growing Together in Christ

As a college student, I attended a predominantly White Chrstian fellowship at a very diverse and multiethnic campus. For our fellowship, growing together spiritually into a dwelling place for God meant diversifying the styles of music that we sang in our worship gatherings. We began incorporating more Gospel music and international songs into our worship repertoire. We learned songs in different languages so that international students would feel more welcome and included. We even began to change up some of the games we played at our game nights and other fun fellowship activities to make sure that we were creating an atmosphere that demonstrated welcomeness and inclusion for a greater diversity of students. It was difficult and challenging, but over the years that I was there as a student and then as a campus minister we eventually saw our fellowship grow to reflect the diversity of the campus – so much so that one day we saw a picture of our fellowship on a flyer that our campus had made about diversity!

But the growth that we saw happen didn’t just come about by changing our structures. Breaking down the dividing wall of hostility involved a heart change, and an attitude change. It involved taking risks and getting to know people who were different from us, learning to value the opinions and perspectives of others who had different cultures and backgrounds than our own. It meant taking the time to hear about the experiences, beginning to care about the types of things that they cared about, and building friendships with those who were very different from us.

One friend who did that for me was a guy by the name of Derrick, who reached out to me and befriended me when we were in college. Derrick is African-American and had grown up in East Baltimore, in a neighborhood that was about 99% Black at the time. As a child, Derrick hadn’t had a lot of positive interactions with White people, and he had a lot of fears and mistrust based upon some of his previous experiences. But in college Derrick felt God leading him to reach out to me, to get to know me, and to extend trust to me, and that was the beginning of a wonderful friendship that lasts even to this day. Throughout our time in college Derrick challenged me and helped me to grow in my faith and walk with God, and I can honestly say that I would not be where I am today in my faith if it weren’t for Derrick’s influence in my life.

Friends, we cannot grow into a holy temple in the Lord if we allow the walls of hostility to remain. We cannot grow together spiritually into a dwelling place for God if we’re only willing to build with people who look like us, or think like us, or act like us. We need the whole body of Christ in order to grow spiritually mature in Christ.  

And so let us work, and pray, and love, and extend God’s love even and especially to those who are different from us. Let us not allow even a hint of superiority or inferiority to exist among us. Let us grow together in love for all of God’s people, so that together we can be built into a holy dwelling place for God!

Setting Our Hope

July 11, 2021 homily on Ephesians 1:3-14 by Pastor Galen Zook

Chosen

One of my favorite things in school was to be chosen by the teacher to run a special errand or to be given a special responsibility, like taking a note to the principal’s office, or showing a new student around the school.

When I was in 6th grade, my teacher asked me to coordinate a blanket drive for our 6th grade class. This felt like a huge responsibility because it involved making flyers and hanging them up around the school asking people to donate blankets that we could give out to people who were in need. Scariest of all, it involved making announcements on the school’s loudspeaker system.  This blanket drive involved a lot of time and effort – and one of the side benefits was that it got me out of a lot of class time!

It’s fun to be chosen. It’s fun to be selected. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of being chosen for a promotion at work, or selected to receive a scholarship at school. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of being selected to be on a sports team. Or perhaps you’ve had the experience of being in love, and being chosen by a partner or significant other.

Of course many of us also know what it’s like to not be chosen also. We’ve been passed over for promotions that we thought we deserved. Perhaps we didn’t make the cut for a sports or performing arts team. Or worse, perhaps we were chosen last, and somewhat begrudgingly at that.

Before the Foundation of the World

In Ephesians chapter one, Paul is writing to the church at Ephesus. This is a church that in many ways could possibly feel like they have not been chosen, or that they’ve been passed over or left out, since they were not part of the people often known as God’s Chosen people – the Israelites. In addition, they might feel a little left out because the Apostle Paul is no longer with them. It seems that he’s moved on to planting other churches and doing other ministries, and they might feel like they’ve taken a back seat.

Paul knows this congregation well, having spent a significant amount of time with them, living and ministering in Ephesus for over 2 years — which was actually a long time for the Apostle Paul, who always seemed to be on the move. 

Actually the story of Paul’s time in Ephesus is rather amazing, and you can read about it in Acts chapter 19. Interestingly enough, Paul actually had a very successful ministry in Ephesus among people who had formerly practiced various types of magic and witchcraft. Paul spent about two years dialoguing with them in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, after which many of them turned to Christ in a radical manner, burning all of their magic books and turning their hearts and lives over to Christ in a radical, all-encompassing way.

Paul’s ministry had had such a transformative impact on the city of Ephesus, in fact, that it garnered negative attention from the silversmiths and other artisans who crafted idols to one of the pagan deities. These craftsmen complained that Paul was depriving them of their businesses by convincing people that “gods made with hands are not gods” at all (Acts. 19:26). The city just about erupted in a riot, causing Paul to leave Ephesus rather hurriedly.

And so these new Christians in Ephesus, who had experienced radical transformation, who had turned away from their magic and idolatry, were left in many ways to figure out their newfound faith without the benefit of the Apostle Paul there to walk alongside them. And so perhaps they wondered if they were special enough, or good enough. Perhaps they felt a bit passed over, or forgotten, like they weren’t the first ones chosen for the team.

And so now, years later, Paul is writing this letter to the Ephesian Christians to encourage them in their faith. This is the only letter written by Paul in the New Testament that is not written to address a particular concern. Paul seems to have no issues with the way the Ephesian Christians are living out their faith – he is merely writing to encourage them – and through them all of the other churches – to continue growing in their faith and their walk with Christ.

And here in Chapter 1, as part of his encouragement to them, Paul tells the Ephesian Christians that they were chosen “in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1:4). 

Imagine how much of a shock this statement must have been to the Ephesian Christians. As Gentiles, as people who used to practice idolatry and witchcraft, they probably lived with a constant, nagging fear that they weren’t good enough or holy enough, or worthy enough to be accepted by God or to be accepted into the people of God. 

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the phrases “Chosen people” and “holy nation” were generally reserved for the Israelite people. In Deuteronomy chapter 7, for example, Moses, speaking to the Israelites, says “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deut. 7:6). 

And yet here in Ephesians 1, Paul, a Jewish Christian, is applying the same words used historically to describe the Isarelite nation, and using them to describe the Ephesian Christians, and indeed each and every one of us, saying that we have been chosen by God “to be holy and blameless before him in love.”

And Paul doesn’t say we were chosen second, or chosen last, or even that God chose us begrudgingly – he says, in fact, that each and every one of us have been chosen “in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). 

Chosen in Christ, before the foundation of the world. Think about that for a minute! God, who is sovereign over all creation, who the Psalmist describes as the “King of glory…The Lord strong and mighty” (Psalm 24:8). The One to whom the whole earth belongs – “the earth…and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1). This God, the God who founded the seas, and established the rivers, as we read in Psalm 24:2. This God, has chosen us – you and me, the Ephesians, and people all around the world – before the foundation of the world.

Holy and Blameless

Now we may say “but what exactly have we been chosen for? What exactly have we been selected to do or to receive?

  • We have been blessed with every spiritual blessing (vs. 3).
  • We’ve been chosen in Christ to be holy and blameless before him in love (vs. 4).
  • We’ve been destined for adoption (vs. 5). 
  • God has redeemed us through Christ’s blood, and forgiven our trespasses according to the riches of his grace (vs. 7-8). 
  • God has made known to us the mystery of his will (vs. 9). 
  • We’ve been given an inheritance (vs. 10). 
  • We’ve been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit (vs. 13), which is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory (vs. 14).

Notice that just about everything that Paul mentions in these verses are things that God has done for us through Christ! Not a single item on this list is something that we have to do in order to earn God’s favor or God’s blessing. God bestows these spiritual blessings upon us, and there’s nothing we have to do to earn or merit them.

Which is a good thing, because every single item on this list is something that we could not have done for ourselves. We couldn’t make ourselves holy and blameless. We couldn’t force ourselves to be adopted into the family of God. We couldn’t redeem ourselves, or learn the mystery of God’s will all on our own. We couldn’t earn an inheritance, since an inheritance is by nature something that is given, not earned. And we couldn’t mark ourselves with a seal of the Holy Spirit. Each and every one of these spiritual blessings come from God, they are initiated by God, and they are for the glory and praise of God. 

Setting our Hope

But there’s one little phrase in the midst of all of this that I don’t want us to miss, because it is something that we can do, or perhaps have already done. Paul says in verse 12, “so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12).

Paul says that we have “set our hope” on Christ. In speaking to the Ephesians Christians, he sets this in the past tense – because they’ve already done it! The Ephesians set their hope on Christ when they got rid of all the barriers in their lives that had kept them from loving Christ. When they turned away from false idols, and gave their hearts and lives to Jesus, they were setting their hope on Christ.

We set our hope on Christ when we set aside our work for a few minutes each day to pray and read our Bibles. We set our hope on Christ when we come together to worship God, and when we advocate for justice, and serve those who are in need. We set our hope on Christ when we stop trying to find our identity in our careers or vocations or getting promotions at work or being chosen by other people, and instead we look to Jesus for our hope and our security. We set our hope on Christ when we lay aside everything that is holding us back, everything that might be a barrier or a hindrance in our relationship with God, when we lay everything we have and everything we are on the altar and say, “God use me! All I want to do is live for the praise of your glory.”

And this hope is not some pie-in-the sky hope, some dream that we just wish will someday be fulfilled. This hope that we have is a hope born out of adversity, a tested-and-tried type of hope, that has been through the wringer and come out the other side. 

This is the type of hope that we see in the three young Hebrew men who were thrown into the fiery furnace in Daniel 3 – young men who had a bold and quiet confidence in God, who refused to bow down and worship the golden statue, but who said “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18). 

This is the hope that we see lived out in Abraham and Sarah, Esther, and Ruth, David, and Deborah and Daniel. It’s a hope that we see expressed in the lives of Jesus’s disciples, in the Apostle Paul, and yes even in the Ephesians Christans. It’s a hope that we see expressed down through the ages, by saints and sinners –  everyday people who turned their hearts and lives over to Christ, and said God, I want to live for the praise of your glory.

And so let us continue to set our hope on Jesus. Let us relish and celebrate the spiritual blessings that we have been given in Christ. We’ve been chosen, selected, not because of anything we’ve done to earn or merit God’s favor, but we’ve been chosen to receive from Christ all of the spiritual blessings that God has bestowed on us.  Let us set our hope on Christ, and let us too live for the praise of his glory.

We Are Family

July 04, 2021 homily on 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

“We Are Family”

Several years ago our family had the opportunity to attend the “International Zook Reunion” which was held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 

Unlike most family reunions that I had been to in the past that generally involved a small gathering of close relatives, this international Zook reunion was open to anyone whose last name was Zook, as well as anyone who was even remotely related or descended from one of the 3 Zook brothers who immigrated from Holland back in 1742. 

There were Amish Zooks at the reunion who had preserved the original religion and lifestyle of those 3 Zook brothers from Holland. And there were Swiss Zauggs (who retained the original spelling of the name) and who had travelled all the way from Switzerland for the reunion. They even treated us to some alphorn music! The reunion was a sort of 3-day festival, with hot air balloon rides, cotton candy and soft pretzels. Oh yes, and I even met another Galen Zook at the reunion!

Now with all the different types of Zooks who were at the reunion, there wasn’t a whole lot that we all had in common. But somehow the fact that we had some distant common ancestor was enough to make us feel that we were connected. 

12 Tribes of Israel

In 2nd Samuel chapter 5, the various tribes of Israel had been fighting for quite a few years. After King Saul died, at least half of the twelve tribes were ruled by King Saul’s son, Ish-Bosheth, who ruled for 2 years. The tribes in the southern part of the kingdom, however, had banded together with David as their ruler. 

But after Ish-Bosheth was killed, the northern tribes came to David and appealed to him to be their king as well, saying, “we are your flesh and blood.” In other words, “we are family! 

They say,

In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns. And the Lord said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler.’”

And so 2nd Samuel tells us that all the elders of Israel came to King David at Hebron, and “the king made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel.”

The 12 tribes of Israel who had been at war with each other decided together to put their differences behind them. They appealed to their common ancestry and they united together with David as their king. 

Now I know it may not seem that remarkable to us that the 12 tribes of Israel were able to unite together in recognition of their common ancestry, since we normally think of Israel as a cohesive, collective whole. 

But the reality is that the twelve tribes of Israel were an extremely diverse and multiethnic group. Yes, they were all descended from one common ancestor, Jacob – whose name was later changed to Israel. But by some estimates upwards of 800 years had passed between Jacob and King David.

And not only that, but the twelve tribes of Israel were really a multiethnic group of people, since their common ancestor’s 12 sons were born to four different wives, and each of those sons had married women from different cultures. We know, for example, that Judah married a young Canaanite woman named Shua (Gen. 38:2), and Joseph’s wife was from Egypt (Gen. 41:45). Later on of course we know that Moses married a woman from Ethiopia, Rahab was a Canaanite woman who joined the Israelies, and that Ruth was from Moab. Even when they fled from slavery in Egypt the Bible says that “a mixed multitude also went up with them” (Ex. 12:38). So the Israelites truly were an international people.

But here in 2 Samuel 5, they leveraged the fact that they were related by blood, albeit long ago in the distant past, and they united together making David their King. David made Jerusalem the capital city, and 2 Samuel tells us that “David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.”

Out of Many, One

My understanding is that something similar happened here in the Hampden community many years ago. When it was founded, Hampden was its own little village, about two miles north of the city limits of Baltimore City. Of course Hampden was annexed to Baltimore city over 130 years ago, but even to this day our neighborhood still retains a lot of its independent identity. When it was founded, people moved to Hampden from around the United States – primarily Kentucky, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania – due to the abundance of jobs at the mills here in Hampden and Woodberry. 

While they were mostly of European heritage, religiously and culturally they would have been quite diverse. And so they found a way to unite together around their common citizenship as Americans.

This was one of the reasons why the Fourth of July was always such a major holiday here in Hampden, and often it was celebrated even here in church. For many, the flag was seen as a symbol of unity, meant to bring people together, to remind them of their common heritage, despite their religious and cultural diversity. 

Actually, we see this same sentiment expressed in a lot of the mottos and symbols of our nation. E pluribus unum – Latin for “Out of many, one” – is a traditional motto of the United States, appearing on the Great Seal. We see a similar sentiment expressed in the poem inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” We hear this sentiment expressed in the American Pledge of Allegiance: “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Drawing the Circle Wider

Unfortunately our nation has often failed to live up to our own ideals, and not everyone has been included in these visions of unity. But I have to say that these are all wonderful aspirational statements – and I am very grateful to live in a country that is as diverse as our nation is. And when these statements and symbols are employed to bring people together from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, that’s a good thing. 

The problem is that quite frequently throughout history, national – and often even religious – symbols have often been used, not to bring people together and remind us of our shared humanity, but rather to separate people out, or sadly even to push others away. Think about how frequently the cross, for example, has often been used more as a bludgeon to beat other people down, rather than as the reminder that it is supposed to be – of our common need and dependence on God’s grace and mercy. 

How Should We Then Live?

How then, should we live as Christians, and as citizens of a nation so diverse as the United States? How can we rally together around our shared kindredness – whether that be as members of the same family, or nation, or members together of the Church – the Body of Christ – without ostracizing and pushing away those who aren’t members of the same group?

#1. Like the Israelites in 2 Samuel, we can try to draw the circle as widely as possible. The Israelites included all twelve tribes of Israel in their nation, despite their vast ethnic and cultural diversity – and also included any foreigners who were living among them. They could have focused on their differences and distinctions, going back only to their own original tribal leaders, but instead they went back even further, highlighting their common ancestry in Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah.

Like them, we draw the circle as widely as possible. We pray not just for our own nation, but for all nations, regonzigin that a nation is only good as long as it’s values and practices line up with the ideals that are set forth for us in God’s Word. And so we pray for our nation and for all nations to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). We pray for all nations to love their enemies, as Jesus taught. We pray for our nation and all nations to look out for the marginalized, the downtrodden, and all those who are tired and poor, homeless, and tempest-tossed.

#2. We recognize along with all people throughout the world our common need and dependence on God, which we were reminded of in our New Testament and Gospel lessons this morning. In 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 Paul talked about the “thorn in the flesh” that he was given in order to keep him from becoming prideful. This “thorn in the flesh” – whatever it was – reminded him of his weakness and of the power and grace of God. And in Mark 6 Jesus sent out the disciples two by two, without food or money or a bag, completely dependent on God and the generosity and hospitality of others. 

Recognizing our common need and dependence on God for our daily provision and for every breath that we take should unite us together with people all around the world, since everyone in the world is dependent on God, whether they realize it or not. 

#3. We recognize that because of Christ, as members of the Church and the body of Christ, we are family. And yes, like family members we will sometimes argue and perhaps even fight, but it’s important for us to extend grace and forgiveness to one another, and seek the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God. This is why each Sunday we pass the peace to one another, and why when we take communion we pray a prayer of confession to God and one another. 

And so this morning let us remember that we are family. And let us remember that our family is a whole lot more international and diverse than we could ever dream or imagine! Let us draw the circle as widely as possible, uniting together around our common need and dependence on God for our daily provision and for each breath that we take. Uniting together around our interdependence on one another and our common need for God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. 

Let us Pray:

God of gods and King of kings; you called and anointed David,

you called and blessed Paul, and through your Son Jesus, you called the twelve to follow.

In our time you have called us.Enable us to trust you above all voices, beyond all of our prejudices and fears. Give us courage to follow and serve you among all of our neighbors and with one another in the body of Christ.

God of every nation, hear our prayer.

Giving What You Have

June 27, 2021 Homily on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 by Pastor Galen Zook

Lunch Money?

Every year, for at least the first few weeks of the school year, the school secretary of the local elementary school would routinely collect the lunch money from the new kindergartens at the start of each school day, just to make sure the money didn’t get lost during the course of their busy morning activities. 

One year, most of the kindergarteners either brought a packed lunch (or qualified for free school lunch), so none of the kindergartners had any lunch money, but nonetheless the school secretary dutifully came into the classroom for the first few days, asking in a loud voice, “Does anyone have any lunch money for me?”

Paul’s Jerusalem Fundraising Campaign

It was understandable that the little boy thought that the secretary was in need since she was the one asking for money. And if we were to read 2 Corinthians 8 without any context, we might think that Paul is asking for funds for himself or his direct ministry as well. But Paul had made it clear elsewhere that the funds he is requesting from the Corinthians are not for himself, but rather for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.

In fact, Paul had refused to accept any money from the Corinthian Christians for himself, choosing instead to practice his craft of tentmaking in order to support himself while in Corinth, as he explained in 1 Corinthians chapter 9. 

Interestingly enough, the wealthier Corinthian Christians had probably wanted to support him financially – it would have been a source of some pride to them to be able to say that they had supported a traveling “philosopher” (which is how Paul would have been viewed by many of the secular people in Greek Corinthian society). But instead, Paul had chosen to identify with the artisans in Corinth by practicing his craft in the marketplace, giving him opportunity and credibility to share the Good News of Jesus with the everyday working class people who were often overlooked and undervalued by Corinth’s wealthier classes.

And so, although Paul had made it clear to the Corinthians 1 Cor. chapter 9 that he had every right to seek financial support from them for himself as a minister of the Gospel, but that he had chosen not to exercise this right, so as not to put any “obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:12b).

And yet here in 2 Corinthians chapter 8, Paul is in the midst of a massive fundraising campaign in which he has been collecting money from various churches around the Mediteranean area – on behalf of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. It’s possible that the Christians in Jerusalem were undergoing some specific economic hardship – perhaps they were even experiencing the famine that had been predicted in Acts 11. Or perhaps he is raising funds specifically for the care of orphans and widows or some other group of people in Jerusalem who were in financial need. 

But for Paul, this offering is more than just about meeting the physical needs of the Christians in Jerusalem. For Paul, it was about demonstrating unity in Christ. It was a practical way for the Corinthians and other Gentile Christians to express their gratitude to the Jewish Christians for the spiritual legacy they had inherited. It was a practical, tangible way to break down the wall of separation between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. It was about expressing their mutual acceptance into the body of Christ, and their oneness as believers in Jesus.

Finishing What they Started 

As we see here in 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Paul’s fundraising campaign has been underway for quite some time. The Corinthians have already started to give towards this cause – or at least they had wanted to give a year before this. But it seems that over the course of that year their enthusiasm for giving has perhaps waned a bit. Paul says in verse 10, “And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something – now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.”

Anyone who has ever participated in a fundraising campaign – whether you were the person raising the funds, or the donor – knows that there’s a big difference between wanting to give, and actually giving. As someone whose day job involves quite a bit of fundraising, I generally have learned not to count on someone’s gift until they’ve actually either given something, or at the very have least quoted a dollar amount. There’s a huge difference between expressing a vague desire to give, and stating the intended amount of your gift. Committing a specific amount is a huge step towards giving, because it means the person has actually taken the time to figure out how much funds they have available and how much they’re willing to part with. They’ve counted the cost. They’ve made it specific and tangible.

Paul doesn’t want the Corinthian Christians to give out of guilt or obligation or compulsion. As he’ll tell them in the next chapter, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). But Paul does encourage them to actually follow through on their commitment to giving, saying, “finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means” (2 Corinthians 8:11). 

And, in case they’re worried about the amount of their giving – whether they might be giving too much or too little, Paul assures them, “if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little'” (2 Cor. 8:12-15). 

In other words, Paul is saying, give whatever you can – it’s the attitude behind the gift that counts, not the amount. The word translated “eagerness” here in verse 12 can also be translated “zeal, spirit, inclination, readiness of mind.” Paul wants them to give eagerly, zelously – to follow through not only on their giving, but also their desire to give. A bit of a different order of events than what we might expect, but especially important given the nature of the offering that he was collecting – as one expressing unity in Christ, given across cultural and ethnic boundaries, as a way to express mutual love and affection in Christ. 

As a theological foundation for this, Paul points to two precedents. The first is God’s provision of manna to the ancestral Israelites when they were wandering in the desert. In Exodus 16:18 we see that no matter how much each Israelite household gathered, everyone had just enough – no more, and no less than they needed. And Paul suggests that this would be ideal. He is not asking the Corinthians to give beyond their ability, but to give whatever they can, eagerly, and joyfully, recognizing that there may come a time when they are in need, and they would want others to do the same for them. 

Riches of Christ Jesus

As another precedent, Paul points to the self-giving sacrificial love of Jesus, who, Paul says in verse 9, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

Of course the riches that we have in Christ are not monetary riches. Following Jesus is not a path to guaranteed health and wealth, as some have suggested. For Jesus, coming down to this earth entailed giving up wealth in the sense of power and status and privilege and resources. He identified not just with us as humans, but with the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. He interacted with the marginalized and expressed God’s love to those who were on the fringes of society. He helped those in need, and he was also willing to receive support from those who had means. 

And in doing this, he opened up the path to God to anyone and everyone, no matter our wealth or power or economic class or cultural or ethnic background. By impoverishing himself, but giving up his wealth and status and privilege, Jesus made it possible for any and all of us to have spiritual riches, an eternal inheritance as children who have been adopted into the family of God, as we see for example in the book of Ephesians (see for example Eph. 1:5 and 11).

Grace

Similarly, the collection that Paul is taking up for the church in Jerusalem does not just have financial implications, but it also expresses a spiritual reality. Now yes, the collection is in the tangible form of money. But the word that Paul uses to describe the offering in verse 7 – the word that’s translated “generous undertaking” in the New Revised Standard Version – is actually the Greek word charis, most often translated “grace” in the New Testament. This is the same word that is used throughout the Scriptures to describe the mercy and forgiveness and salvation that God has extended towards us through Christ, even though we are undeserving. 

And so we’re right back where we started — seeing that the offering that Paul was taking up for the saints in Jerusalem was not only a way for them to meet the practical needs of the Christians in Jerusalem, but it was also a tangible way for them to share in God’s grace, love and affection with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. It was a practical way to unite the body of Christ, to remind each party of the common spiritual inheritance that they had received, and of the unity that they now had through Christ Jesus.

Extending Grace

Giving financially is one way that we extend God’s grace to others – which is why every week we take up an offering as part of our worship service. It’s not just about meeting the financial needs of the church. It’s not just about keeping the lights on, or paying the water bill. It’s about participating in and furthering the mission and ministry of our congregation and of the Church as a whole.

And there are other ways we participate in and share God’s love beyond the giving of our finances. We extend God’s love and grace towards others through the giving of our time and talents. We extend God’s love and grace through extending welcome and invitation towards others, inviting them to become a part of a loving community that is looking out for not just their physical needs, but also their spiritual and emotional needs as well. 

Over the past year as many people have been attending church online rather than in person due to COVID, we’ve been reminded that church is not just about singing songs or listening to a sermon. But it’s about having a community of people who can surround us when we’re going through difficult and challenging times, encouraging and supporting us through hardships, and also celebrating with one another when we’re experiencing joys. This is one reason why we often take prayer requests and praises during our worship gatherings. Obviously we could each go home and pray individually on our own, but there’s something powerful about sharing our burdens and concerns with one another, and celebrating the joys and victories that we’re experiencing – it’s a way we share God’s grace – charis – with one another. 

This is what Paul was wanting for the churches in Corinth and Jerusalem and all the other surrounding churches – tangible ways for them to experience the unity that they have in Christ, the grace that they have received in Jesus, and to be able to express that grace to one another.

And so this morning, I invite us, I urge, and compel us, to extend God’s grace to others – both within our congregation, and to the surrounding community and world. Let us give of ourselves generously and joyfully, in whatever way you can. Some of you might be in a season of life where you have more time than money – and so give generously of your time and talents to God and others, without any shame that you don’t have more monetary resources to give! Others of you might be in the opposite situation – where your time is scarce, but you find that you have plenty of money or other resources to give. 

No matter what situation you may find yourself in this season, extend God’s grace in whatever way you can, eagerly and joyfully, not begrudgingly. Remembering Jesus’s model of self-sacrificial love, and remembering too that God can and does often miraculously provide in ways that we least expect. Remember that God desires for each and every one of us to participate in the sharing of God’s grace – remembering that by extending God’s grace to others, God’s grace abounds that much more to us as well.